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No longer reliant, Bears just need reliability in return game

H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com Bears's Armanti Edwards runs up field during drills at OTA practice Wednesday, June 11, 2014 in Lake Forest.

Technically, the Bears must replace Devin Hester in 2014, as the greatest return specialist in NFL history will be on the opposite sideline when Chicago visits the Falcons in Week Six. No fewer than five men will be vying for the role in Bourbannais later this month.

Fortunately, for the Bears, they’re in a position where relying on Hester’s record-breaking production is no longer vital. With an average offensive ranking of 23rd in the league between 2006-2013 – including their lone top-10 finish, No. 8 in 2013 – the Bears needed Hester to be every bit as special as he was to put anemic offenses in position to succeed. But with coach Marc Trestman and one of the league’s most dynamic offensive personnel groupings at its disposal, Chicago just needs its return game not to be prohibitive to its now formidable offense.

Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis told the team’s website this week that “a guy who can make all the catches” is among the greatest criteria he’ll be looking for in the competition.

“You gotta be focused,” former Panther Armanti Edwards, who signed with the Bears last month after Domenix Hixon tore his ACL, told Chicago Football. “No. 1, you have to catch the ball. No. 2, you have to trust your teammates … No. 3, get downhill fast.”

Edwards, 26, has averaged 7.0 yards on 40 career punt returns and 19.7 yards on 15 kickoff returns in a four-year career with the Panthers and Browns. One of his chief competitors in the competition, Chris Williams, agreed with DeCamillis and Edwards that it starts with catching it cleanly.

“First and foremost, you have to be able to catch the ball, secure the ball,” said Williams.

Rest assured, it sounds a lot easier than it is. The Bears still don’t know who can be trusted in that regard, as the offseason featured a lot of kickoffs and punts scraping the roof of the Walter Payton Center. It resulted in the returners receiving short tosses from coaches indoors, instead of dealing with the weather elements, as well as knuckling footballs descending on them at the same time as would-be tacklers, like they will be come September.

It’s part of the reason the competition is anyone’s to win in training camp. It starts with ball security, and it’ll be much easier for the coaches to gauge who has it when the action is outdoors and the threat of collisions becomes a real possibility.

“You just have to take reps,” said Edwards. “Once you get familiar with the kicks and how long it takes for the ball to get down, how long it takes for everyone to hold up, you get familiar with it.”

On his third NFL stop, Edwards has also become familiar with how precious opportunities in the NFL are. Though it didn’t work out in Carolina, where the college QB from Appalachian State was drafted in the third round in 2010, he remains grateful for the time he had with the Panthers.

“I got a lot out of it,” Edwards said. “I got to learn from Steve Smith and Ricky Proehl at the receiver spot, and I also learned that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. It’s a fast sport; if you don’t catch on when they want you to, you got to move on… they move on as well.”

Like Hester and Williams, Edwards’ game revolves around speed. He posted a 4.41 40-yard dash at his 2010 Pro Day. While Eric Weems and Micheal Spurlock have more NFL experience as returners, they’re unlikely to offer the same type of home run potential as this pair.

Just don’t expect Edwards, Williams or any of the five Bears included in the competition – second-year running back Michael Ford being the fifth – to engage in a conversation regarding the act of replacing Devin Hester.

“(Hester’s) production speaks for itself,” Williams said. “What, 19 (return touchdowns), I think? That’s unbelievable… I couldn’t even imagine.”

There was a time when the Bears couldn’t imagine life without Hester. That time has passed, and they now can sacrifice special for steadiness in the return game — but even that shouldn't be taken for granted. For that reason, it will be a fun competition to watch in a few weeks.

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